Anyone who has heard of Namibia has undoubtedly heard of her rugged and often deadly coastline – the eerily named Skeleton Coast. Unsurprisingly the name derives from the fact that this inaccessible stretch of coast was littered with skeletons, ship and whale alike!
Two of the most famous shipwrecks along the Namibian coast are the Eduard Bohlen (1909) and the Dunedin Star (1942) whilst one of the most recently discovered shipwrecks is one of the earliest and dates back to the 1500’s when the African coast was just opening up to Portuguese and Spanish explorers.
I intended to write a general blog regarding all the shipwrecks along the Namibian Coast, but there are so many legends and stories, that we will look at a few of the more notable shipwrecks in greater detail.
Let’s start with the most famous wreck along the “Gates of Hell” the Dunedin Star.
The second World War was ravaging Europe and the Dunedin Star, a UK registered cargo liner was en route from Liverpool to Egypt via the Cape of Good Hope with munitions stores, including explosives for the war effort.
With a crew of 85 and 21 passengers (including 8 women, three with babies and one heavily pregnant) she was sailing unescorted and close to the coastline to avoid detection by submarines. Close to midnight on the 29th November 1942 her hull was shattered by a submerged object; several hundred meters from the shore her captain, R. B. Lee gave to the order to abandon ship.
The one life raft lasted three trips from the stricken MV Dunedin Star bringing all of the passengers and half the crew to shore. The crew remaining on the sinking ship were rescued within three days by a passing salvage ship, but the rocky coast line and hazardous conditions meant that it could not put to shore. What ensued was one of the most heroic rescue attempts in history.
The Dunedine Star had run aground some 700kms (400 miles) north of Walvis Bay, along the Skeleton Coast close to a place called Rocky Point. This area of the Skeleton Coast remains as inhospitable and desolate today as it was during World War II.
A convoy of eight rescue vehicles set out from Windhoek and a ventura bomber took off from Cape Town to bring in supplies for the survivors stranded on the beach with no protection from the scorching summer sun and the icy night time fog, at the same time the Sir Charles Elliott ran aground trying to reach the site, and lost a number of its crew in the process.
The Ventura Bomber from the Cape dropped supplies from the air, but then in an attempt to rescue the women and children tried to land on a nearby salt pan, breaking one of the landing gears. It took four days of digging to free the aircraft only to have it crash into the ocean 43 minutes after take-off. The crew not only survived the impact but managed to float ashore on a piece of the fuselage, despite their injuries they all survived the 50km trek inland to meet the rescuers.
This air crash resulted in a renewed rescue attempt from Cape Town and three more Ventura bombers headed up along the West coast of Southern Africa, with a double mission – rescuing the survivors and locating the original eight rescue vehicles. Another convoy of vehicles also joined in the search for the ground rescue mission.
Ten days after setting out from Windhoek the convoy of rescue vehicles reached the stranded survivors and the survivors arrived back in Windhoek a month after their ordeal started.
Not a single soul aboard the Dunedin Star was lost, but two seamen serving on the Tug, The Sit Charles Elliott lost their lives, another ship was sunk, a large aircraft and a number of army trucks were all destroyed in this rescue attempt.
In 1944 John H Marsh published a detailed account of the rescue efforts in a book titled Skeleton Coast and for more than quarter of a century this story has enthralled readers across the Globe. The last edition has been out of print for more than a decade, but this does not diminish the allure of the Skeleton Coast in the slightest.